The police this week urged the press not to use pictures of the three suspects appearing in court in connection with the July 21 bomb attacks. Despite the CCTV footage and other evidence, we were told that there could be an issue of identification at trial. So if one were to wrongly picture an accused who turns out to be innocent and not the person caught on CCTV, one would run the risk of being in contempt and a possible defamation action.
The need for caution is clear as the case of Egyptian chemist Magdi al- Nashar demonstrates. He was pictured across the media as being wanted in connection with the July 7 bombings. Following his arrest and investigations in Cairo, he has been released without charge. While he had met two of the bombers, there was no evidence to link him with their or any other terrorist activities. He now fears for his safety when he returns to Britain and rightly points out that less people are likely to be aware of the reason for his release than those who saw his photo alongside headlines relating to the July 7 bombings.
This poses a dilemma for the press and the police. Using pictures helps to track down and warn the public about criminals but once they are caught and the legal process kicks in, the prominence given to the subsequent story is normally less sensational. So one is unlikely to find Mr al Nashar’s picture on the front page with a headline proclaiming his innocence.
Preventing (or asking the media to refrain from) publication of pictures is surely not the answer. It’s how pictures are used that matters, not the fact of their use.
While most news organisations complied with the police’s request, the BBC decided to use the CCTV pictures to identify the accused. This neatly got round the identification issue in that it showed those caught on CCTV as being those appearing in court. If any of the accused successfully raised a challenge of mistaken identity as not being the person caught on camera, then there would be nothing contentious about the BBC showing the CCTV stills as they would not have identified the wrong person, it would be the police who had.
To the extent that the police rely on the press to publish pictures, the press rely on the police to identify the correct people.
So it is right that Sky news is today showing an artist’s impression of one of the suspects, Yassin Hassan Omar. If we allow the use of such pictures for regular criminal trials, why not for terrorism.
The fear of contempt and trial by media should not prevent the media from covering such important trials and their preceding investigations. Faced with being bombed, and being warned by police and a video on Arabic television purporting to be from al Quai’da, that further attacks are inevitable, public interest in these cases could not be greater.
While the press and legal authorities are drawn into a game of cat and mouse over UK contempt laws, the fourth suspect wanted in connection with the July 21 bombings is free to dictate his defence to investigators and the media in Italy. There have been conflicting reports about the evidence or ‘claims’ being made by Osman Hussein or Hamdi Isaac, as he likes to be known in Italy. He has supposedly identified the other suspects from pictures shown to him and told investigators that he didn’t mean to bomb or hurt anyone but just to scare. So is it acceptable to scare innocent commuters and the public as long as you don't blow them up?
As his Italian lawyer, Antonietta Sonnessa stated in an interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, her client is ‘a poor boy on the wrong tracks’. Does that mean he is a ‘lesser’ form of terrorist? Is there such a thing? That is the dilemma facing politicians grappling over new terror legislation.
What is interesting is that be it through the Italian media or through his lawyer, Isaac is able to set out his defence. So when reports appear in the press about what he supposedly confessed to investigators, his lawyer is swift to counter this with her ‘true’ version of her client’s claims. She even resorted to cheap tricks by claiming her client was fighting extradition as he was ‘scared and afraid’ after ‘what happened to the Brazilian’.
With his lawyer playing down the seriousness of the offences alleged against him in the UK and Italian authorities keen to be seen to securing their own trial on terror, extradition may still be far from a done deal. A ‘decisive’ hearing is scheduled for next week but Italian media reports suggest that talk of temporary extradition may be on the cards
Meanwhile the conflicts of laws and interests in the extradition process are being mirrored in rules that apply to and are being prescribed for the press. The foreign media are busily harvesting a ripe crop of comment over in Italy, while the UK press is being cautioned.
This exposes an unsatisfactory state of affairs that neither serves the interests of justice nor the interest of the press.
In this online age where coverage that is prohibited or discouraged in this country is only a mouse-click away on a foreign news site, we need to accept the reality that is trial by media.
The only way to ensure a level playing field is to achieve equality in coverage. Whether newspaper reader or juror, the better the information before you, the more informed a judgement you’ll be able to make. The endemic problem in the UK is that there is an inherent distrust between the press and the legal process.
Its time to break down the barriers and put some trust in juries and the legal process without having to shroud proceedings in an extended veil of contempt. An inquisitive press seeking to provide information for its public should be able to function alongside the due process of law without posing a threat to the system. If not, then it is the system we should examine as much as the press coverage of it.
The secret terror courts are not an answer. Shutting out scrutiny will convince neither the public or civil liberties campaigners that justice is being done.
More discussion on whether pics should be shown HERE and HERE